John Gibson Paton: Faith that Changed the World

When Scotsman John Gibson Paton announced his intentions to serve as a missionary in the New Hebrides islands of the South Seas, a Mr. Dickson cried out in despair, “‘The Cannibals! You will be eaten by the cannibals!’” (J. Paton ch. IX). Mr. Dickson’s concern was not unfounded. In 1839, nineteen years before Paton’s announcement, missionaries John Williams and James Harris sailed to the New Hebrides island of Erromanga only to be killed and eaten by the island’s inhabitants minutes after coming ashore (McKenna; Piper, John G. Paton 1). Yet, Paton gave this reply to Mr. Dickson’s gruesome prediction: “‘Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms, I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms’” (J. Paton ch. IX). As John Piper notes, it was this “in-your-face spiritual moxie” that would define the rest of Paton’s career (“Immortal Till His Work”). To this Scottish missionary, there was no cost to great for Christ, and it was his courage and faithfulness to God that would rock the New Hebrides islands with the Gospel and, through that work, the world.  

Though Paton’s voyage to the New Hebrides marked the beginning of an extraordinary time of ministry, Paton’s childhood in Scotland was not nearly as adventurous as his later life would become. Paton was born in Kirkmahoe, Dumfriesshires, Scotland on May 24, 1824 to James and Janet Paton (Parsonson). The eldest of eleven children, Paton was enrolled in a parish school till the age of twelve, at which point he dropped out to help with his father’s stocking business (McKenna). Paton still had a thirst for learning, however, and for two hours each day he taught himself Latin and Greek (“John G. Paton: A Missionary”). During Paton’s childhood, his father’s faith was instrumental in instilling him with a reverence for the Word of God (McKenna). After every meal, James Paton would shut himself up in a prayer closet for a personal communion with his Lord (Piper, “John G. Paton’s Father”). In the span of forty years, the elder Paton missed only three church services (Schrock). These everyday examples of reliance on God would be an inspiration to Paton for the rest of his life, to the point that whenever he remembered the earnest prayers of his father, he would ask the question, “‘He walked with God, why may not I?’” (J. Paton ch. I). Thus, the steadfastness of his father’s faith amidst a simple childhood instilled in Paton a faithfulness to God that would inspire incredible deeds to come.  

With the foundation for his faith laid, Paton moved to Glasgow in his early twenties to pursue education and ministry with little idea that it would be in this same city where God would call him to the New Hebrides (McKenna). Paton had taken a job as a tract distributor for a congregation in Glasgow, and though it came with one year of seminary training, ultimately his lack of funds forced him to put a hold on his education (Schlehlein 10). Nevertheless, Paton soon found a job teaching at Maryhill Free Church School (Parsonson). From there, Paton launched into ministry for the Glasgow City Mission. This ten-year period of his life would result in the most successful ministry the Mission had ever known and prepare him for service in the New Hebrides (Schlehlein 12; “John G. Paton: A Missionary”). Though Paton was happy in his work, he felt a continual burden for the cannibals in the South Seas who, unlike the people of Scotland, had almost no one to care for the state of their souls (J. Paton ch. IX). On March 23, 1858 he was ordained. After marrying Mary Ann Robinson in April of that same year, the newlyweds began their new life together by sailing to the New Hebrides (McKenna). Paton’s ministry on the infamous South Sea islands had begun.  

When Paton set foot on the New Hebrides island of Tanna in November, he was faced with a people devoid of Christ– and it was this that he would try to reverse, not only on Tanna, but on the island of Aniwa as well (Piper, John G. Paton 3). Paton’s ministry on Tanna, however, brought little success at the time (Schlehlein 38). To make matters worse, Paton’s wife and newborn son died, leaving him utterly alone (J. Paton ch. XIV). Finally, in 1862, rising tensions forced Paton off the island (Mckenna). In the end, the impact of Paton’s short time on Tanna would not be revealed until after his death, as today the island is now ninety-four percent Christian (Schrock). Despite the loss that Paton experienced on Tanna, he was not done with the New Hebrides. In 1866, Paton returned to the South Sea islands with a new bride, Margaret Whitecross, this time settling on the island of Aniwa (J. Paton ch. LIII, LVIII). It was here that Paton labored for the next fifteen years (Schlehlein 49). In 1869, the Patons joyfully received their first twelve converts, and by 1872 almost the entire island of Aniwa had turned to Christ (M. Paton 66; Parsonson). Despite Paton’s astounding success on the island, his time there ended in family tragedy, and in 1881, he retired from his missionary work (Schlehlein 64). Instead of slowing down, however, Paton advanced full throttle into an entirely new kind of ministry.  

Between 1884 and 1899, the now elderly John Paton went on three major world tours inspiring fervor and raising money for the work of missions (Schlehlein 65, 73). Though Paton’s work on the New Hebrides had ended, the stories of his time on the islands inspired thousands to become missionaries (Piper, John G. Paton 14). On his first world tour, Paton raised 9,000 pounds for a mission ship (Schlehlein 66). Not only that, but the Scotsman’s speeches helped awaken the Australian conscience to the needs of the heathen and strengthened the church at home (Parsonson; Piper John G. Paton 18). Even with this vigorous work, Paton still found time to publish the New Testament in the Aniwan language in 1897, and by 1898, there were two dozen missionaries on the South Sea islands (Mckenna; Schlehlein 73). His autobiography, published in 1889, gained him even more supporters (Parsonson). On his final tour, Paton travelled 44,000 miles, attended 820 meetings, and raised 13,000 pounds (Schlehlein 73). Unlike the modern notion of retiring in one’s old age, Paton spent his final years doing hard work for Christ.  

After a well-lived life for the glory of God, Paton died at the age of eighty-three on January 28, 1907 in Melbourne, Australia, leaving behind him an exemplary legacy of faith and courage in hardship for generations of Christians to come (“John G. Paton: A Missionary”). Time and time again during Paton’s work on the islands, his faith was tested and remained steadfast, sustaining him through the intense trials of missionary work (Piper, “Immortal Till His Work”). It was his faith that allowed him to say, when his wife died on Tanna, that he felt “immovably assured that my God and Father was too wise and loving to err in anything that He does or permits” (J. Paton, ch. XIV). Similarly, Paton faced many circumstances that for the average person would have been terrifying. Yet, he advanced with courage. He pressed on even when he was sick with the same disease that killed his wife and fearlessly faced an armed chief brandishing a loaded musket (Piper, John G. Paton 9; J. Paton ch. XXI). To examine Paton’s life is to be unceasingly confronted with a faith in and a courage for God that are an example for all to follow.  

In addition to leaving behind such a powerful legacy, Paton’s life teaches two important lessons. First, Paton’s actions demonstrate that to the faithful Christian, no cost is too great for the Gospel. During his missionary career, Paton was faced with much hardship, loss, and danger. Not only did his first wife die on Tanna, but during his time there several fellow missionaries were martyred on a nearby island and taken by disease (Schlehlein 31, 32). On Aniwa, the Patons’ baby girl died and the grieved husband could not even hold his wife’s hand as he himself was debilitated with sickness (M. Paton 123). Yet, Paton’s service to God did not falter. To him, Christ was worth it all. Secondly, Paton’s life shows that doing God’s will often means criticism. When Paton first left for the New Hebrides, he was criticized for leaving a successful ministry in Glasgow (McKenna). When he fled Tanna, he was accused of lacking the courage to stay (Piper, John G. Paton 12). Yet, in both instances, Paton was trying to serve Christ. One can understand, then, that to face criticism is a normal experience for the child of God. To this day, then, Paton’s story is a wealth of wisdom and Christians will do well to learn from this faithful servant.  

John Gibson Paton left behind him a world that had changed because of his courage and faithfulness to God. The once heathen islands of the New Hebrides had been radically touched with the saving truth of the Gospel, and through Paton’s speaking career after his time on the islands the world was awakened to the call of missions. To this day, Paton’s life has left his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ a legacy of faith and courage. In the end, Paton’s impact on the world is a tangible representation of what God can do with an individual when they submit to God’s will for their lives. Paton’s story of courage and faith in the New Hebrides is a trumpet call to every Christian today who is afraid to step out and obey their Lord. When Paton journeyed to the New Hebrides, he had no idea if, like missionary John Williams, he would be killed as soon as he stepped ashore. Yet, he did it anyway because he had faith in God. To every Christian, to answer God’s call means stepping out and trusting him, and like missionary John G. Paton, it is that kind of faith that may one day change the world. 

Hey friends! 

What you have just read is a research paper that I did for my English class on the amazing missionary John G. Paton. Because this was a research paper written for school with a page limit, I was only able to barely, barely scratch the surface of John Paton’s inspiring story. There were so many horrific struggles and harrowing adventures that give testimony to God’s saving hand during Paton’s time on the islands that I was unable to dive into (as you can imagine, living among cannibals and confronting them with the truth of the Gospel was no picnic). Since this was for school, I had certain topics that I was required to hit in this paper, but if I could have, I would have spent the entire time just discussing Paton’s faith during his time on the islands and the immense struggles that he faced (instead I had to spend more time on his accomplishments).

If this paper has gotten you interested in John G. Paton, then please don’t stop here! I would strongly, strongly encourage you to take the time to uncover all the riches, conviction, and encouragement that can be found in this man’s story. If you’d like to learn more about Paton and how God worked in his life, Paul Schlehlein’s biography on Paton is an excellent starting place. For a deeper dive, I would also recommend Paton’s own autobiography published by his brother, James. Both of these books were used as sources for my paper so you can find more information on them in the works cited below. I hope you have and will find as much encouragement from his story as I did! 

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